Facing a possible sports shutdown, Texas 4A & below volleyball teams are willing guinea pigs for COVID-19 – The Dallas Morning News


KAUFMAN — Trash bags covered seats in the stands to promote social distancing. Players wore masks on the sideline. 

Temperature checks were administered to anyone entering Kaufman High School’s gym. And fans got in for free so tickets and money didn’t have to exchange hands. The school’s online ticket sales are a work-in-progress.

High school sports looked a lot different Tuesday than they did back in March, the last time a UIL sporting event was held.

UIL volleyball matches in Class 4A and below began this week, with most Dallas-area teams starting Tuesday. Kaufman hosted a dual match with Lindale and Midlothian Heritage and had plenty of safety protocols in place amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Big Ten and PAC-12 were busy canceling their fall sports seasons, volleyball teams happily took the court.

“They were excited to be out there, especially on this floor, and to play some volleyball,” said Kaufman coach Jeff Maly after his team opened its season with a three-set loss to Lindale. “It’s still different with trying to celebrate and things like that. Just the energy in the gym is a little bit different.”

Fans were required to wear masks at all times except for when they were in their seats. The same went for players, except for when they were among the six on the court and actively playing in the match. Most players even kept their faces covered as they warmed up.

“We’re really trying to approach the game the same and ignore the things on our face and the sanitizing and just play,” said Midlothian Heritage coach Erika Weber, whose team lost to Lindale in four sets before playing Kaufman in the final match of the night.

LindaleÕs Skylar Wyllie spikes the ball as KaufmanÕs Evelyn Ramos (4) defends during a high school volleyball match at Kaufman High School, Tuesday, August 11, 2020. Lindale won in three straight sets. (Brandon Wade/Special Contributor)

Sanitizing stations were set up at the entrances and exits. Signs read “Please sit in unmarked seats only,” and fans were spread out in the available seats on both sides of the gym — the ones that weren’t covered up with trash bags.

Kaufman wasn’t scared about hosting matches involving schools from three different counties.

“We just feel like if we will follow the guidelines and protocols that are set forth by the TEA (Texas Education Agency) and UIL, that we will be fine with the masks and socially distanced seating,” said Kaufman athletic director Jeramy Burleson, who is also the school’s football coach.

On the court, the action resembled non-pandemic times, as players dove for balls, came together In quick huddles to celebrate points and exchanged congratulatory high-fives and hugs. But players were handed their mask any time they stepped off the court for a timeout, a substitution or a set was completed, and coaches wore masks that they could easily slide down if they needed to shout instructions before and during points.

UIL Class 6A and 5A teams won’t start matches until Sept. 14. The hope is that no shutdowns will be necessary before schools in the bigger cities — where the virus has been more rampant — start playing.

“If we’re going to be the guinea pigs and show them how it’s done, then I don’t mind being that person as long as everybody is doing it correctly so we can have our season,” Maly said.

The UIL suspended its boys basketball state tournament during the semifinals March 12, as the pandemic was starting and professional and college sports were shutting down throughout the United States. That was the end for high school sports in Texas, and on April 17, the UIL announced that it was canceling the remainder of the 2020 spring seasons.

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As of Monday, Kaufman County had reported 2,158 total COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths since the pandemic began, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. By contrast, neighboring Dallas County, about 40 miles away, has had the second-most cases in Texas, with 55,255 cases and 756 deaths, according to The Dallas Morning News.

“We do feel fortunate,” Burleson said. “Our local governance has required us to wear masks in public places, so that’s what we’ve done. Everybody out there in our community has done a great job of trying to comply, and maybe that’s the reason we have kept the numbers down.”

When matches ended, the teams simply waved goodbye to their opponent instead of shaking hands. Within minutes of the final point, those helping run the event got busy wiping down the chairs that had been occupied by both teams, getting them sanitized.

Then it was on to the next match, as players and coaches tried to block out the same health concerns that were present back in March. They just hope the outcome is different and that high school sports won’t be shut down again.

“Of course it’s scary for our girls,” Weber said. “All I want is to play. I don’t care what their record is. We’re just going to play as hard as we can until someone tells us we can’t.”

Bryley Steinhilber shoots against the defense of a couple of teammates. The varsity outside hitter for the Lady Kats of Kennedale joined teammates for their season opening practice session. Under the direction of head coach Kelly Carl, the team conducted their first practice of the season at Kennedale High School in Kennedale on August 03, 2020.

Find more high school sports stories from The Dallas Morning News here.